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Who were the Levites?

Our story begins to unfold four-hundred and thirty years prior to the time of the Exodus when Jacob (who was now referred to as Israel - Genesis 32:29 [32:28 KJV]) relocates his family to Egypt in order to escape a severe famine in his homeland. At the invitation of his son Joseph (a high ranking official in the Egyptian government at the time) and an unnamed Pharaoh, the elderly Israel packs up his belongings, his remaining family and permanently moves his household to the land of Egypt.

Israel = Jacob
The twelve families and sons of Israel
(prior to the Exodus)
Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali,
Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulon, Joseph, Benjamin

As the years progressed, the rulers of Egypt changed and apparently so did the attitudes the Egyptian government towards the now affluent and growing numbers of Jacob's descendants, the Israelites. A group of people that had once been considered an asset to the nation during the time of Joseph, became looked upon with suspicion as a threat to national security and were conscripted as laborers for the massive building projects being untaken at the time by the government (Exodus 1:7-10).

Toward the end of the four-hundred and thirty years since Jacob first entered Egypt with his family, the Biblical texts go on to say that God took note of the plight of Israel there and raised up a seventy-nine year old man named Moses from the family of Levi to lead the descendants of Jacob out of Egypt. On the fourteen day of Abib (Nisan) after midnight (Passover), Moses and the multitude went out from Egypt. The Egyptians were so happy to see them go after all of the plagues that had befallen them, that they gave the Israelites whatever they asked (Exodus 12:35-36). Along the gold and silver articles and clothing that were given them, the Israelites also took from Egypt things of a far greater value. They left that night with a wealth of technical knowledge and skills that had been acquired during their sojourn there. The art of music may have been one of these skills.

As they eventually reach the far side of the sea of Reeds (trad. the Red Sea) after the pursuing army of Pharaoh is drowned in the sea, we get our first glimpse of Moses, the songwriter (Exodus 15:1-20). Now most people do not associate Moses with the field of music, but he evidently was well versed in this art.

We know from the texts that Moses had been raised apart from the general population of Israel in the house of Pharaoh during his youth and had apparently not only learned to read and write, but also how to read and write music. We also know that Moses was a Levite. In this first song of Moses at the sea of Reeds we find a simple statement that directly ties his understanding of music to the musical system of Levites that would surface centuries later during the time of David. This simple statement echoed in the Psalm manuscripts and by the prophet Isaiah was not only beautifully figurative; but in a very literal sense shows a fundamental aspect employed within the musical system of the Levites, YAH is my melody.

"YAH is my strength and my melody..."
Exodus 15:2, Psalm 118:14, Isaiah 12:1

Going back to our story, we find that three months after leaving Egypt, the Israelites finally arrive at the desert of Sinai and pitch camp before the mountain of God, the place where Moses sometime earlier had seen the burning bush and had been given the directives by Him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt (Exodus 3:1, 19:1-2). Assembling at the base of the mountain, Moses is called up into the mountain into the presence of God. Remaining there for forty days, he eventually returns to the people with a set of codified rules we call the Ten Commandments and an extensive building project that would help mold and shape their spiritual lives and unite them as a nation. A project that would not only utilize the extensive resources they had acquired from the Egyptians, but also a plethora of highly skilled technical and administrative skills that were acquired by the people of Israel during their four-hundred and thirty year sojourn in the land of Egypt. This project would be the building of a semi-portable structure referred to as the Tabernacle (Exodus 25:1- 40:48; Leviticus 1:1-27:34 and Numbers 1:1-10:36).

The Tabernacle

Taberacle

"And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them. According to all that I show you; the pattern of the tabernacle, and the pattern of all the furniture thereof, even so shall you make it." - Exodus 25:8-9

The Holy Compartment of the Tabernacle

Taberacle

When we look over the various accounts relating to the building of the Tabernacle, we find that the texts read more like a project plan than traditional Scriptural material. Within the texts we find very detailed information relating to administration functions, materials, construction specifications, personnel, procedures, testing etc. This was a massive undertaking by any standard.

The primary function of the Tabernacle was to be the central repository for the chest of the Testimony (the Ark of the Covenant). This chest, which contained the two stone tablets given to Moses (the Ten Commandments ), would also be the central physical location from which God would communicate and direct the people of Israel. The Tabernacle was also the location from which various sacred rituals would be performed by a select group of individuals, the priests. The Tabernacle system consisted of five primary components:

The physical structure, referred to in Hebrew as the Dwelling, was constructed of forty-eight gold-plated, hollow vertical panels that could be erected and locked together with rods to form a three-walled, free-standing structure. The interior of this structure was sub-divided into two compartments by columns and fabric partitions. The smaller of the compartments, called the Most Holy, was the location where the chest of the Testimony was situated and was generally off-limits to everyone. The larger of the compartments, referred to as the Holy, was the location of the bread table (aka the table of the showbread), the altar of incense and the gold lamp-stand. Outside the Dwelling in the courtyard were the bronze washing basin and the bronze altar used for the sacrifices.


The Sacred Articles of the Tabernacle

Ark of the Covenant
Chest of the Testimony
(aka the Ark of the Covenant)

Altar of incense
Altar of Incense

Table for the bread
Table for the bread of the Presence
(aka the table of the showbread)

Golden Lamp Stand
Gold Lamp Stand (the menorah)

Bronze altar
The Bronze Altar

Bronze Washing Basin
(image not available at present)

The ceiling of the Dwelling consisted of various decorative and non-decorative fabrics that were draped over the structure. Over the building and these decorative fabrics was erected a tent of animal skins that provided protection from the elements and was referred to as the Tent of Meeting. The Tent of Meeting and the Dwelling were in turn situated in the center of large fenced-in area called the court that acted as a secure perimeter and compound around the Dwelling in which the general population was prohibited from entering.

The Tabernacle, much like our contemporary houses of worship would indeed be the center of worship for the people of Israel at this time. However unlike its modern counterparts, the Tabernacle was not a place where the general population gathered under one roof to engage in formalized services, sing songs, listen to Scriptures and a sermon. The Tabernacle and surrounding compound were places where only a select group of individuals were permitted to enter and in some cases perform very specific rituals. These individuals as well as related support personnel were to come from the descendants of Levi, the Levites.

It was at this juncture that the descendants of Levi were separated from the general population and given the obligation and privilege to serve in varying capacities within the Tabernacle and later Temple systems. In place of the descendants of Levi within the collective family of Israel, the sons of Joseph (Ephraim and Manasseh) would be given individual hereditary portions along with the other family units. From this point forward, the Levites would not included in the collective people associated with the term Israel , but were considered as a separate entity.

The twelve families of Israel
(shortly after the Exodus)
Reuben, Simeon, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad,
Asher, Issachar, Zebulon, Ephraim, Manasseh, Benjamin
 
Levites Levi (separated as a distinct group from Israel)

Due to the unique positions held by the Levites in relation to the Tabernacle and Israel, much of the early Biblical texts deal specifically with the their lineages and functions. From these texts, we find that the term Levite may refer to one of four distinct groups of people descended from the family of Levi and not one.

  1. the descendants of Gershon [Libni, Shimei] 
  2. the priests - Aaron and his descendants 
  3. the non-priest descendants of Kohath [Izhar, Hebron, Uzziel] 
  4. the descendants of Merari [Mahli, Mushi] 

Levi


1. Gershon

Kohath

4. Merari




Libni Shimei Amram

3. Izhar

3. Hebron

3. Uzziel

Mahli Mushi
2. Aaron
the priests
the priests

(Genesis 46:8, 46:11; Exodus 6:17-19)

The aspects which separated these four lineages from each other were primarily determined by their function in relation to the Tabernacle system and secondarily, by the level of access to the sacred articles shown above (Numbers 1:49-50).


The Four Divisions of the Levites

The two primary divisions of the Levites were broken into:

Priests
1. Descendants of Kohath through Aaron and his sons
ritual functions, packing of the sacred articles for transport by the non-priest Kohath Levites

Non-Priests
Unlike the priests, who not only engaged in specific rituals within the Tabernacle system but were physically permitted to approach the sacred articles; the functions of the non-priest lineages of Kohath, Gershon and Merari was restricted and limited to being the support personnel for the Tabernacle. This included the on-going maintenance, disassembly, transport, and erecting of the structure and compound area.

2. Descendants of Kohath through Izhar, Hebron and Uzziel - carrying of the sacred articles
responsible for carrying the sacred articles on their shoulders once packed up and covered by the priests
3. Descendants of Gershon - fabrics
responsible for all the fabrics, coverings, and partitions* of the Tabernacle and compound area
(excluding the *fabric partition between the Holy and the Most Holy compartments which was used to by the priests to cover the Ark)
4. Descendants of Merari - structural components 
responsible for the structural components of the Tabernacle and compound area. Dismantled, transported, and re-assembled the physical structure from location-to-location

For the entire family of the Levites, their separation from the general population meant that they and their future generations were locked into very specific occupations and would have a great deal of their freewill to make independent decisions regarding their vocation curtailed or eliminated entirely. The descendants of Aaron would always be priests, the sons of the non-priest Kohath Levites would always carry the sacred articles, the sons of Gershon would always tend to the fabrics and the sons of Merari would always tend to the structure. In consideration for their service, YAHVEH gave the Levites the most important gift of all - time.

Once they had completed their duties, they did not have to turn around and grow food or otherwise make a living like everyone else. Their physical needs were to be provided for them by the contributions of the people. They even had a nice retirement plan that would ensure that their needs were met after the age of fifty years of age when they were freed from the normal obligations previously required of them in the various functions of the Tabernacle (Numbers 8:25-26).

It is no wonder that the Levites as a whole became the educated and literate individuals within the society, not only responsible for reading and communicating the written word, but imparting the understanding of it to the people (Nehemiah 8:1-8). It is most likely because of the free time they were permitted when not serving in their respective functions as support personnel for the priests and the Tabernacle that from the ranks of the non-priest Levites would come the singers and musicians of later years.

The work on the Tabernacle continued and in less than a year; the structure, its furnishings, and the compound were completed. With the Levites in their respective positions, the Tabernacle is assembled for the first time. After being inspected by Moses, the structure was then disassembled for transport and the Israelites given the directive to brake camp. For the next forty years, the Israelites and the Levites will wander around the desert with the Tabernacle until they are finally permitted to enter the land that would become their permanent home, the land of Canaan.

The people now under the direction of Joshua, who took over the seat of Moses after his death, finally cross the Jordan river into the land Canaan. The lands were then divided among the families and the Tabernacle erected in Shiloh (Joshua 18:1, 1 Samuel 1:3). Behind the scenes for the next five centuries and not documented in any of the Hebrew texts, the musical system of the Levites was apparently evolving and solidifying within the ranks of the non-priest Levites. A system that would be eventually be utilized by the most influential and prolific songwriter in the Biblical texts, David - the second king of Israel.

Reference